In many ways, short stories are just like longer pieces of fiction. Both follow a general plot structure, establishing a clear setting and characters within. They then build tension and conflict before resolving it. However, with short stories, the length is limited—usually to 5,000 words or fewer. Not only that, but they capture one snapshot in time and portray a message through that event. Needless to say, it’s important that every piece of a short story propels the plot.
The biggest question you’ll have to tackle when writing your short story is why you’re telling it. What does your protagonist want? What stands in his/her way? Similar to long prose, you’ll need to make the first few paragraphs engaging and captivating. You can do so by establishing a distinct and detailed environment, strong characters, and a clear initial conflict. Just remember to build up to an even bigger encounter at the climax of the story.
The second tip to creating a stellar short story is don’t make the plot too complicated. You’ll need to be able to unravel it by the end. That’s not to say it can’t be intricate and interesting; just keep the subject matter down to something worthy of a short tale, not an entire book.
Another way to make sure your tale stays short is to limit yourself to one or two main characters and a handful of side ones. Any more than that, and the plot quickly becomes too complicated to resolve within a short time frame. However, with a minimal number of characters, it’s even more important that you build well-rounded ones. Give them distinguishing characteristics. Include meaningful dialogue, especially with accompanying actions. What your characters do and say will resonate more with the reader than narrative backstory will.
The middle section of your story will probably be the richest. It includes the climax, which hinges on the answer to a crucial question: What significant choice or change does your protagonist undergo? It’s at this point that the reader will see significant character development and the start of a resolution to the overall plot.
For the resolution, the protagonist needs to either succeed or fail at what they were trying to achieve in the beginning. If they succeed, at what cost did they do so? If they fail, what did they gain or lose by trying? Your resolution can be a bit open-ended (meaning it doesn’t have to be completely black and white), but it does need to have a defined direction. In other words, if your protagonist faces a choice in the end, you could hint at the fact that she’ll pick choice A over choice B without directly stating it.
If your story still doesn’t seem to be working, try experimenting with point of view or tense. Short stories lend themselves to a wide range of POVs and tenses that work well, something that doesn’t necessary ring true for longer pieces of prose. A first-person narrative told in present tense, for instance, is often better suited to a short story than a novel.
Finally, keep an eye on the structure. Don’t make your story character-based or plot-based; it should rely on both! In other words, the specific situation you write about should only happen because of the exact characters, timing, and circumstances involved. If the same story could be told with different characters or a different setting, try reworking it. The end result should be something that is totally unique.